It ain’t easy being a teen actress in Hollywood. Your choices are usually limited to Disney Channel shows, love stories involving vampires, werewolves, and/or zombies, and sing-along musical comedies (a la High School Musical, Pitch Perfect, Glee, etc). But Hailee Steinfeld has managed to avoid all of those teen-casting stereotypes.
She made her feature film debut at just 13, in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 western epic True Grit. It was one of those meaty roles that teen actresses almost never get; an emotional complex girl not afraid to mix it up with seasoned killers. The role led to critical raves and an Oscar nomination (she lost to Melissa Leo from The Fighter), and unlike so many actresses before her, she didn’t follow up her success with sappy high school love dramas or disposable teen comedies. Instead, her next big film (after taking some time off to focus on being a teenager) was Ender’s Game, a sci-fi action flick co-starring Harrison Ford. In other words, she followed up ass-kicking with…. more ass-kicking.
2014 promises to be more of the same. In 3 Days to Kill, which opens February 21st, she plays the estranged daughter of an international spy and terrorist hunter (Kevin Costner). And that’s just the first of a wide range of new movies with increasingly adult themes. She’s co-starring in films about fractured families and addiction (Hateship, Loveship), teenage pregnancy (Ten Thousand Saints), American slavery (The Keeping Room), drunk parenting (Can a Song Save Your Life?), and the difficulty of being a normal teenager when your after-school job is killing people (Barely Lethal). The only time she’s done anything even approaching a teen rom-com was last year’s Romeo and Juliet, and as you may recall, that story ends with suicide.
I called Steinfeld in New York City, where she was beginning work on Ten Thousand Saints, inconveniently timed right in the middle of a Polar Vortex onslaught. “It’s like a hundred below zero,” she laughed. “I can’t believe we have to do scenes outdoors. It’s insane.” She’s instantly likable, especially when she’s overusing a phrase like “Oh my gosh” (which she does often.) Her acting sensibilities might be mature beyond her years, but she’s still very much a teenager.
You’ve got four films coming out this year. That’s a lot, even for a seasoned acting vet. Are you burning the candle at too many ends?
I don’t think so. It’s funny how it all works. When I talk about everything I’m doing, I feel like I sound really busy. And I am, definitely. But I’m not busy to the point where I don’t eat or don’t sleep. I find plenty of time to be with my friends and my family and just be on my own. I’m healthy about it.
When you’re stuck on a movie set for months, do you find ways to unwind and keep your sanity?
Oh sure. I mean, I like the singular focus of being in a different environment for a month or so, leaving everything behind and just throwing everything you have into this one thing. But I also like shooting in a place like New York City, where you’re able to go out and explore and do something fun on the weekends. It keeps you busy and clears your head.
You wrote something on Twitter recently that I feel maybe needs explanation.
Oh no. [Laughs.]
You wrote, “Expect a lot of pictures of me running around set in my new Koala onesies today.”
What was going on there? Did you just crack under the pressure?
No, no! I was shooting a film called Barely Lethal, and my friend Sophie Turner, who’s in the movie too, gave me a koala onesie for my birthday. So I wore it on the last day of filming.
Just between takes, right?
Oh yeah, of course. I’d hang out in the koala onesie. I ate lunch in the koala onesie. The best part about it is it has a hood with little koala ears, and it comes down far enough to cover up my face. So since this was the last day, a lot of the cast and crew were saying their goodbyes and taking pictures with each other. And when people asked to take a picture with me, they always asked, “Will you put on the koala onesie?” And I was like, “Of course.”
Why wouldn’t you?
But then they asked “Would you put the hood on so we get the full koala?” [Laughs.] Absolutely, I’ll cover my face right up for the photo.
There seems to be a recurring theme in all the movies you have coming out this year. 3 Days to Kill, Barely Lethal, The Keeping Room. They’re all badass.
Wow. Thank you.
Is that not the right word?
No, I’ll take it.
They seem badass to me.
Please, put that out there. I’m good with that.
Is that by design, or does your agent only send you badass scripts?
I wish I could say I was that smart. But sometimes you don’t realize just how much potential a script has until you’re at the first table read or rehearsal. Just this morning we did the table read for Ten Thousand Saints. I knew I liked the script, but reading it aloud with all the actors, you start seeing levels to it you didn’t know were there. There were some really incredible comedic moments that I never picked up on when I read it alone. Your own instincts can only take you so far.
So you’ve gotten lucky?
[Laughs.] I’ve been very, very lucky.
What’s the most insane thing you’ve done in a movie so far?
Like jumping out of a plane into a moving truck. Something that made you go, “What the hell did I just do?”
I’ve had a few of those moments. In True Grit, the first movie I ever did, I was in a snake pit with real snakes. But they were famous snakes.
They had been in the movie Snakes on a Plane. That was cool.
Holy lord. They told you this?
They did, yes. I think that was supposed to put me at ease. Which in some ways it did. But not really.
They’re still snakes.
Even famous snakes are snakes.
That doesn’t decrease their inherent snakiness.
It’s still unsettling, especially when they’re sliding in and out of your jacket. But I guess it was nice knowing they weren’t first-timers.
Nothing’s been as intense or mind-blowing since?
Well, in Barely Lethal I’m hanging out of a helicopter, and I’m in a car chase. I’ve done some things.
Are you old enough yet to do your own stunts?
I do some of them. I’ve done some fight scenes. Somebody today on the set was talking about Daniel Day-Lewis, and how he was doing a fight scene in a movie, I forget the name of it, and he was really going at it. He actually broke a guy’s nose.
Yeah. I heard about this. It was Gangs of New York.
He head-butted DiCaprio and broke his nose.
You’ve never done that?
Broken another actor’s nose?
Done a fight scene where it got a little too intense.
Never even came close. Whether it’s a fight sequence or a stunt, I like to have it down so that it’s second nature. I want it to be so choreographed that I’m not even thinking about it. But even then, I know my limits. I’ll do everything up to a certain point, and then I’ll let the stunt double take over. I’m not crazy.
You’ve had a few fictional dads.
A lot, actually.
Kevin Costner plays your dad in 3 Days to Kill. And Vince Vaughn is gonna be your dad in Term Life. Who am I missing?
Mark Ruffalo was my dad in Can a Song Save Your Life? That was such a good experience.
Which of your fake dads gave you the best fatherly advice?
Oh wow. That’s such a good question. They’ve all given me tips and words of encouragement that have meant so much. A lot of it I’ve heard before, but it really sinks in when it’s coming from people that I respect so much. You know what I mean?
If the right people say the same old things…
Exactly! It may be something that you’ve heard a thousand times before. But if it’s said by these older actors who’ve been doing this thing you love for longer than you’ve been alive….
It means more somehow.
It really does. It’s just simple advice, too. Have fun and ask questions and be curious and notice the little things. It’s not rocket science.
Which of your fictional dads would you let adopt you?
Wow. [Long pause.] That’s a difficult choice. I don’t know if I can choose.
It’s all hypothetical.
I know, I know. But it’s hard. I feel weird picking a favorite. And I haven’t even worked with all of them yet. I’m not doing the film with Vince for another couple of months. So I don’t know. I’m not done with the whole father-daughter thing yet.
You need more time?
I need to think this through. Give me until the end of the year, I’ll be able to answer the question.
You’ve worked with some iconic actors, like Harrison Ford and Samuel L. Jackson and Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones.
Do you give yourself a crash course in their filmography before you show up on the set? Or have you already seen all their greatest hits?
I tend to know generally what most people know. Sometimes I’ll go back and watch a few things they’ve done, just to feel a little more prepared. But that of course just gets surreal.
Well, you’re watching these amazing actors, doing some amazing performances, and the whole time you’re thinking, “I’m going to be acting with them soon.” That’s a very hard to comprehend most times.
When you did Ender’s Game with Harrison Ford.
Oh my gosh!
Did you go into that film thinking, “Holy crap, I’m doing a movie with Han Solo?” Or is that before your time?
I’ve seen Star Wars.
But you were born in 1996, almost 20 years after the first film was released. It wasn’t a huge part of your childhood.
But I still get it. I watched the first trilogy a few years ago with my brother, and I remember his reaction to it, and how deeply it effected him, and how it effected so many people. That’s not lost on me.
What’s your personal taste in movies? If you had a movie sleep-over with some girlfriends, what would you watch?
With my girlfriends, I’d probably watch something like The Notebook or Easy A. But if it’s just me, I’m on a little more of a classic movie kick.
When I was shooting Can a Song Save Your Life?, I’d overhear these amazing conversations between Mark Ruffalo and Catherine Keener, who played my parents. They’d talk about all these old films, and most of them I’d never even heard of. It’s not like I knew about them and just hadn’t seen them yet, I didn’t even recognize the titles. So I asked them, “Before we all go our separate ways, will you give me a list of movies to watch?” They ended up giving me a bunch of DVDs from their own collection. I have like 25, 30 films that I’m still watching.
What have you seen?
Annie Hall, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, On the Waterfront. Any time I get a free moment, I’ll sit in my room and watch one of these movies.
What do you enjoy doing that has nothing to do with acting or films? What’s your favorite non-Hollywood hobby?
I’m learning how to drive. My brother Griffin’s been teaching me.
He races for NASCAR, right?
Yeah. So he knows a few things. [Laughs.] He makes it a little more fun. Driving is so stressful but he’s teaching me how to enjoy it. He’s given me some great pointers.
Are any of those pointers “Drive ridiculously fast?”
No, no, no. He definitely knows the difference between a race track and residential streets. He’s a very safe driver and gives me very good, safe advice.
Growing up, was it obvious at a young age what you and Griffin would end up doing with your lives? Were there tell-tale signs?
I think so. My brother’s older than me—he just turned 20—but my parents told me that when he was a baby, whenever they went out to dinner with him they had to sit near a ceiling fan because he was obsessed. And as he got older, whenever my mom would bring out the vacuum, forget it, Griffin was all over it. Anything with a motor fascinated him. With me, I was always putting on a show for everybody. I was singing or dancing or doing whatever it took to get my parents’ attention.
Were you trying to be funny, or dramatic?
It was probably funny because I was trying to be serious. I was imitating a lot of what I saw on TV. I’d watch these actors do things, and it seemed so easy. I was like, “I can do that too.” I was such a little parrot. Sometimes I’d try to write songs, and they were just…. [laughs] they weren’t good. I thought songs had to rhyme, so I was coming up with these terrible rhymes. Just a bunch of random stuff.
Are your parents okay with your respective careers, you and Griffin?
Oh yeah, absolutely. They’ve been supportive about everything from day one.
That’s got to be rough. Because their two kids picked the two riskiest professions possible. Your brother’s in NASCAR, where they drive at freakishly dangerous speeds. And you’re an actress, which isn’t exactly a predictable, safe career.
Well, if they have those doubts, they don’t show it. But I know what you mean. I know when we’ve gone to watch my brother race and we’re up in the stands, I’ve had thoughts like, “Griffin, why didn’t you choose poetry? Why do you have to be in this race with all these crazy drivers who are out to get you?” I’m sure my parents are having those thoughts too. But you have to stop and think, well, he’s crazy enough to be down there and he loves it. You just trust that he knows what he’s doing. I think that’s what my parents think with me. They trust me. Even if sometimes it scares them, they trust me.
You left school even before your movie career took off, right?
That’s right. Since sixth grade.
Do you ever feel sad or wistful about what you missed?
By not being in high school?
Yeah. Some of high school is terrible. But some of it’s kind of awesome.
I feel okay about it. I mean, I don’t feel like I’ve missed too much. I’m working with people my age, and I’ve got all of my friends that I keep in touch with when I’m on the road. It’s not like I wish I had a social life or a normal teenage life. I’m living my life as a teenager, so that’s my teenage life.
But you missed out on school dances, like the prom and homecoming. Not that those are huge deals, but it’s something you’ll never experience.
But I did, in a weird way. That’s what I love so much about what I do. I get to experience these things on a different level, or under different circumstances. In Barely Lethal, it’s set in high school, and there was a homecoming scene.
And that felt like the same thing as going to an actual homecoming?
I can’t say, because I’ve never been to a homecoming. But it was amazing, and a couple of my other cast members hadn’t been to a homecoming either, so it was like we had our own.
At any point during this pseudo-homecoming did you experience anxiety or uncertainty?
Oh yeah! It was nerve-wracking!
Was it a roller-coaster of conflicting emotions?
Absolutely! There’s a moment where the guy’s downstairs waiting for me, and he watches me walk down the stairs. It was awkward and weird and uncomfortable but also really, really good.
Yep, you went to a high school dance alright.
That’s what it’s like?
A hundred percent.
I knew it! [Laughs.]
You were nominated for an Oscar for True Grit, and after you lost, you said you were relieved because you didn’t want to get up in front of everybody and give a speech.
That was three years ago. You’re older now, and probably wiser and more confident. If you get nominated again, are you finally ready for your Oscar speech?
Oh my gosh. [Laughs.] Oh geez!
Is that a no?
Anything that’s sort of public like that, with an audience or a crowd, I don’t know…. there’s something about it that’s just not….
You’re really freaked out by the idea, aren’t you?
It’s funny, when you’re there it feels like the worst thing in the world. But you’re also in a community of your peers, who may or may not be feeling the same fears and anxieties that you are, and you’re all there to support each other. Which is kind of amazing.
You put it that way, it sounds a lot less scary.
You’re surrounded by your fellow actors. If there’s any place to feel comfortable and at ease, it’s there. I may not have realized it then, but I do now.
So you’re ready for your Oscar speech?
Not at all. [Laughs.] Please no. Don’t make me do it.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the February/March 2014 issue of Malibu Magazine.)